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Blacksmiths of Intellectual Property: The Rise of Originality in MMOs - Page 2

Updated Mon, Jun 08, 2009 by Cody Bye

The arguments surrounding the use of original intellectual properties versus licensed worlds in video games have spanned decades and were spawned well before the concept of massively multiplayer online worlds even began to take shape. Though there were plenty of original and licenses products that brought creative ideas and fun gameplay to the consoles and PC, early gaming history was full of horror stories resulting from early movie tie-ins and other established licenses that were trying to cash in on the early gaming popularity.  

Oddly enough, the MMO industry has followed a similar trend. The successes of EverQuest and Ultima Online brought big money to the MMO table, but everyone wanted to find the quickest way to the fastest cash. At the time, the answer was to look for imaginary worlds with established fan bases and milk those licenses for all they were worth. The development of original IP, for many of the folks with the finances to fund an MMO, just wasn't an acceptable risk.

April Burba, former Community Manager for Tabula Rasa and City of Heroes and now a Producer for an unannounced project, has had plenty of experience with original IPs and the risks involved. She had this to say about the profit potential of original IPs versus licensed worlds:

"If you look at the profit and sales of games with existing IPs versus new IPs, nine times out of ten existing IPs do better. There is a reason EA has released over ten Madden games. The industry tends to rehash these IPs as much as possible to squeeze every last drop of profit from an IP, and rightly so - consumers buy them. They are like old friends that we want to see again."

Over at Funcom, Erling Ellingsen (the current Director of Communications at the company) had thoughts that greatly paralleled what Burba had to say.

“There is simply a lot less risk involved in creating a game based on an existing, popular IP. It's easier for a start-up developers to get funding if they build on an existing IP, and at the same time the owners of the IP often has a PR/marketing machinery in place that the developers can take advantage of. Publishers tend to gravitate towards games based on existing IPs, so I can imagine that it's a lot easier for a start-up developer to break into the business by going for an existing IP - becoming a developer for hire.”

But buying up an existing IP isn’t the failsafe answer everyone was looking for. While SOE's EverQuest franchise enjoyed enormous success, Star Wars Galaxies suffered tremendously and The Matrix Online will see its final days by the end of July 2009. Norway-based Funcom innovated and remained profitable with their sci-fi MMO Anarchy Online, but disappointments with Age of Conan caused the company's stock to plummet. Mythic Entertainment's Dark Age of Camelot was a surprise hit, but the anticipated success of Warhammer Online fell short of what publisher EA and the development studio were hoping.

While games derived from previous IPs aren’t necessarily doomed to fail, it is important to note that MMOs spawned from existing non-gaming properties are always going to be limited in some way or another. Unlike EverQuest and other original IP products, licensed titles are often - to use the horrid cliché - square pegs shoved into round holes.

And MMO players notice the difference. When asked whether they would rather explore an original IP or an established world, almost all of our polled gamers were in agreement.

“Either original or some unexplored portion of the IP,” Grouchy stated. “Both of these will have more room for creativity and will not need to be constrained. For the game to have appeal there has to be potential for seemingly unlimited growth and objectives that can be obtained through creative means.”

“An original creation,” Bobfish answered. “Part of the reason I enjoy MMOs is the new experience that the game offers, not just from the mechanics or the people that are playing it, but from the new world and interesting fiction that comes to life before your eyes. If I've already read about it or seen it, then part of that new experience is lost.”

“I think it is time for something original,” OneEyeRed extolled. “All the currently created IP's are just s**t right now honestly and have been. I would love to see a world created around Stephen King's Dark Tower or even The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. I think because I have been gaming for so many years and I have been grinding MMO's specifically since their inception, I get bored easily and I need that epic feeling once again.”

“I would rather play an original IP,” Martuk commented. “That's not to say I wouldn't play an established IP, but with original, developers have more freedom of creation. Let's take Lord of the Rings Online for example. It's a great game with a solid story and some good mechanics. However, the story may be its biggest bane. I am as big a fan of Tolkien as anyone and I did love running through Moria, but the limitations of the story puts serious limits on where the developers can go with the game. Certain creatures and really big nasty raids aren't going to be something the game will specialize in. Grant it, they managed to get a balrog in, but due to the story itself, there will be serious limits on the type of creatures or things we can see.”

“Look at LotRO in comparison to say, EverQuest,” Martuk continued. “When it came to high end levels and raids there was a lot of room for creative growth. You could raid the elemental planes, engage gods and face creatures that dwarfed your entire raid while trying to whisper in a zone that had a madman chasing bunnies. That may sound cheesy, but it was fun! Now LotRO is a great game. I've enjoyed it since launch, but again, even with the nostalgic areas and the great story, the game is still limited by the already established story as to what it can provide you with.”

“I think there are several factors you have to consider when answering this question,” Protect remarked. “How rich is the information for the IP? Does the game have enough wiggle room to create new ideas and events? Established IP's can have a boatload of information, that can create a beautiful world for individuals to play in, but at the same time not be able to really expand. Take Lord of the Rings for example, everyone pretty much knows the story. To me this can ruin the gameplay because there are set things that we know have to happen, and will happen. If a developer can create a rich background I think I would lean toward a new original creation.”

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